Psychotherapy without the Self (but with a glass of wine)

You have to be somebody before you can be nobody. Did you know that? No? Well then you’re probably not a Buddhist. But, you may well ask, why would I want to be nobody? I’m quite happy just being me. That’s not the point. Well not for the purposes of today’s discussion, which is about the first part of Mark Epstein’s Psychotherapy without the Self. He didn’t say psychotherapy without a glass of red wine though so if I come across as slightly blurry around the edges, that’s why.

Now let’s just accept that I’m not quite going to do justice to this book today. But I might just clarify some ideas and pique your curiosity to read or discuss this further. I think serious stuff could do with a bit of levity anyway.

Two central ideas which can be quite helpful here are those of the ideal ego and the ego ideal. Now I often confuse the two so try not to get confused as well. It might help to see them as Other and Self. Apparently the goal of meditation (or one of the goals of meditation) is the strengthening of the ego ideal and the diminishing of the ideal ego.

Follow? I didn’t think so. Let’s try again. If the ideal ego is the (ideal) Other and the ego ideal is the Self then we may consider the ideal ego as the mother before the fall whom the Self is trying to get back to. But this is a doomed enterprise and in fact progress lies in the strengthening of the aforementioned ego ideal (aka the Self). These are the dual orientations of narcissism.

Next up are the central concepts of concentration, insight and mindfulness.

Concentration allows the mind to remain fixed, without wavering, on a single object such as a sound, sensation, image or thought. Mindfulness allows attention to a rapidly changing series of objects but, as such, demands a sufficient degree of concentration to facilitate that process. (p.29)

Now it may be quite revealing that the object I chose for my meditation practice was the mountain. The mountain is big in Cape Town (you can’t miss it) but it has different associations to different people. One of the women in my spirituality group told us that in children’s drawings, mountains are often representations of the breast. So perhaps my meditation on the mountain is really a meditation on the breast? (Let me know if this starts to sound a little flakey. It sounds perfectly logical to me, but then my judgement could be a touch off key with the addition of the Cab Sav).

Now I see from my notes that we have two new concepts here. The Knowledge of the Appearance of Terror. And also Terror and Delight as two central experiences along the path of mindfulness and insight. That makes a lot of sense when you read the book. Trust me.

One problem that I have with concentration is that my concentration tends to wander. One minute I’ll be thinking about the meditative path and next minute I’m remembering the time I got lost in a forest in Sabie and I scratched my contact lens and it was bloody sore and it was probably as a result of trying to impress that American girl and I really shouldn’t have because … (well never mind).

Getting back to the two poles of narcissism, I was thinking that one way of conceptualising the balance between the ego ideal and ideal ego is to think of an (emotionally) abused woman who still loves her husband. Even though he treats her horribly, she still idealises him. It’s not an easy task (say for a therapist) to try and help her to invest that emotional energy in herself rather than him and thus to empower herself. It’s not easy because in some sense the part of her that identifies with the husband is stronger than the part that identifies with herself (if you follow).

At this point in my reading I got a little confused but then we arrived at the Ten Imperfections of Insight, which I can tell you from experience are usually only learned the hard way. As in hitting your head against some faulty perceptions and learning slowly but surely that you are wrong. Fans of CBT will be pleased with this section, which was strongly reminiscent of the various thought-mistakes in CBT. Think all-or-nothing thinking and the like. The Buddhists also talk of pseudo-insight, which I think could be like an “Aha!” moment which is actually distracting you from deeper insight.

Two more ideas before we end.

Meditation may ultimately be conceptualised as a vehicle for freeing an individual from his own narcissism, a liberation that is not complete until the experience of enlightenment (p.38).

My question on reading this was : So what does that enlightenment look like and how do we know when we’re there?

And then, quite serendipitously I chanced upon this quote from the Dalai Lama:

Encountering sufferings will definitely contribute to the elevation of your spiritual practice, provided you are able to transform the calamity and misfortune into the path. (from the Dalai Lama’s Book of daily Meditations)

I was all set to use that in my talk last week but at the last moment I was told that I didn’t need to give the talk after all. I think that’s known as avoidance rather than enlightenment!

I hope that you all will forgive me if I take a few moments to meditate on an apple pudding with custard. There’s no terror here. It’s pure delight 😉


9 Responses to Psychotherapy without the Self (but with a glass of wine)

  1. No wonder I don’t meditate more often. Lord knows, I have enough problems without breasts and custard.

    Wait … what?

    • Pete says:

      David, you are very funny. I hadn’t thought of that connection (duh) but it does make me wonder. Perhaps I should leave food out of this discussion altogether.

  2. sandy says:

    Someone who studies Buddhism recommended this book to me. Very highly. I’d like to read it. I’ve often thought CBT dovetails nicely with several Buddhist principals, being more mindful is one.

    Now, on the point of the ego ideal vs. ideal ego? I think I will remain permanently flummoxed on that one … a 50-50 likelihood of getting it wrong.

    • Pete says:

      Sandy – Very true about mindfulness and CBT. I think part of my resistance to fully embracing CBT is the way we learned it back at Grad school. But I use the principles all the time and it would be a very good exercise to integrate my CBT knowledge with Buddhist practice.

  3. Meditation might be a way for an individual to free himself from his own narcissism, but what about actual narcissists? Since they’re so thoroughly convinced of their own perfection, would they even bother trying?

    • Pete says:

      True. Extreme narcissists would probably not bother. But I think that everyone has narcissism, it’s just a question of degree. Buddhism (as I understand it) attempts to make you give up your self and in that sense free yourself from your own narcissism. But you have to know that Self before you can be free of it.

  4. litlove says:

    I kind of thought the ideal ego was the father – appearing as the third term that splits the mother-child symbiosis and therefore provides the child with its first whole, autonomous template of subjectivity. And this image then gets taken on board and eventually transforms into the ego ideal, the person we are aiming ourselves towards being. So I guess there would always be difficulty in separating off from the ideal ego in order to concentrate on our own selves, as we only understand them at all through the prism of another.

    But my reading comes straight from Julia Kristeva and I imagine that all psychotherapists have a personal version of the early myths.

    Funny, Pete, with all those mountainous breasts and scratched contact lenses!

    • Pete says:

      I’m not sure whether to admire the complexity of views here or despair at the confusion (in my own mind)! Kristeva’s ideas sound very interesting and quite different from Epstein’s (although I will have to check again what Epstein is saying here). From what I understood he talks about meditation often involving an oceanic-like feeling which is a return to that maternal identification. Interesting that there was no mention of the father.

      I think you’re right about the multiplicity of personal versions.

  5. Harriet says:

    Wow. I think the only thing I understood here is the wine and the custard. I’m going to pour myself a glass right now. Cheers!

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